A Flash Of Light, The Crackle Of Electricity, The Smell Of Metal Shavings, And Taste Of Magic In The Air Sweet And Powerful And Sharp As A Razor. DaVinci Had His Machines And Merlin His Spells, But The Techno Wizards Have Both In Perfect Unison, A Mystery Even Mecha Dragons Cannot Understand. We Know The Magics Of Ink And Of Oil, And If You Seek Us, You Will Find Us In Our Workshops, Crafting A Masterpiece.
Book 2: Binti
Published in 2015, Nnedi Okorafor’s science fiction novella Binti is the winner of both the 2016 Hugo Award and 2016 Nebula Award for Best Novella. Binti is the first of the Himba people to win a place at the prestigious intergalactic Oomza University, but to accept the position, she must leave behind her family and culture. A stranger amidst a vastly different culture that looks down on her own, she soon meets an alien race, the Meduse, who are at war with humans and the University. Hers is a story of being the Other who must find a way to bring diplomacy and harmony between species embroiled in a deadly conflict not of her making.
What did you think of the book’s setting?
Michał: It was certainly something else. We moved from a fantasy world resembling Eastern Europe to Southern Africa, then into space.
Mehek: I really liked the ship/space setting. It felt rich, familiar but just foreign enough to continue to be interesting. Plus we have this universal notion of spaceships, and that aspect was an easy entry into a more complicated set up.
Gretchen: I really, really liked the culture/background of the Himba. I’m so used to science fiction being an offshoot of Western (white) culture, that starting with a character from Africa was both a refreshing change and interesting worldbuilding. Oh and the spaceship that’s also alive! That was cool.
Andrea: For a short story, Binti packed an impressive amount of worldbuilding into 96 pages. Binti’s cultural roots in the Himba tribe is the only thread that spans the whole story, that otherwise drops concepts like “treeing,” harmonizing, astrolabes, living ships, and Oomza Uni with no explanation. You have to rely on context clues to figure out the details of this world, which, left open ended, feels deeper than what we see “on page.”
Jeremiah: Yeah, I was impressed by how much world building she managed to get in just in the first few paragraphs alone. Okorafor does a really good job immersing us into the world she created.
Gretchen: Right? I really want to know more about this world, er, universe.
Andrea: The flavor of the universe was like the otjize Binti uses on her skin.
Michał: It did get confusing sometimes.
Mehek: I agree with Michal. I found myself going back and re-reading bits and bobs because I was sure I missed something, when in reality, we were supposed to infer information. It was a bit disorienting.
Gretchen: Definitely a drawback to it being a novella versus a full novel.
Michał: My primary point of confusion was the edan and how it related to the Meduse.
Jeremiah: Same here.
Gretchen: She never did follow up on what it meant when the Meduse called it “shame” did she?
Jeremiah: No she didn’t.
Andrea: I think we’re meant to wonder. My interpretation is that it was somehow related to the Meduse’s water god.
Gretchen: Maybe we’ll get an answer in the sequel. It’s coming out January 31st.
Andrea: That makes me so happy. There is so much material here for another story.
Gretchen: I know right.
Did the characters resonate with you? What did you think of them in general?
Andrea: Binti is our POV character, and we spend a good portion of the story alone in her head. Not only is Binti different from the other students on their way to Oomza Uni, she’s soon attacked and held hostage by hostile aliens. This story is about Binti and how she defines herself in relation to Others. It’s a bittersweet portrait of identity, and that could be painful to read at times.
Mehek: I really enjoyed the relationship that built between Okwu and Binti over the course of the novella. The communication and move from enemies to cohorts to friends was a good pull through the story. I found, however, that the name dropping of other characters were kind of off putting. A series of a few friends is mentioned at the beginning and before we meet them, they’re killed off. It didn’t do much for the humanity of the story.
Michał: It was a rather… macabre passage from a “new student in a big school” type of story to an alien abordage.
Gretchen: I definitely had a “well that escalated quickly” moment when the Meduse boarded her ship and killed everyone but her.
Still, I really like Binti as a character. The combination of mathematics and mysticism as well as empathy and logic works well for her and really highlights her role as a “harmonizer”. Which then plays out in her ambassadorial role between the University and the Meduse.
Jeremiah: I really appreciated how she made the connection between Binti and her family seem fleshed out For a novella it was a rich and complex relationship.
Michał: Her mixture of mysticism and mathematics were definitely interesting, if kind of confusing. But mathematics were never my strong suit.
Andrea: Math isn’t my thing either, but I liked that “treeing” still felt accessible. It sounded like that adrenaline fueled meditative state that people mean when they talk about “the zone.”
Gretchen: It’s a unique spin in sci-fi, or at least one I haven’t seen in awhile. Normally you get science vs mysticism, so I like that she merged them.
Mehek: I think that goes back to how we are dropped into the world and meant to parse it together. The math/mysticism works conceptually, but on the page was a little confusing.
Michał: Her “treeing” reminded me of something, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Gretchen: I know what you mean.
What didn’t work with the novel?
Michał: Well, just like we’ve said before – having to put information together by ourselves has its downsides.
Gretchen: That’s another disadvantage to a novella, for sure.
Mehek: I felt that we ended up being told a lot, rather than shown. We’re told Binti makes friends with a group, we’re told that there’s this conflict between the Meduse and the University, and while we’re shown the relationship with the family, the importance of the Ojitze, etc, the big plot points feel glossed over in comparison to the cultural description.
Michał: Some important events also come out of the left field a little.
Jeremiah: For me some of the stuff with the Meduse on the ship was a little rushed.
Gretchen: I would have like a scene or two more of Binti’s interactions with her friends and the guy she has a crush on. Without an established emotional attachment, I’m not going to feel as upset for Binti when they get killed off.
Andrea: You know, I can see all your points, but to me, I thought the author didn’t want to waste time on those things because they weren’t important. As soon as the Meduse show up and the story changed, that was the real beginning.
My gripe: the Meduse were referred to with the pronoun “It.”
Gretchen: It felt like she was trying really hard not to gender an alien race that may not have conceptions of gender like humans do.
Andrea: I would have preferred “they” but it may be that I am being oversensitive. Using “it” to describe a sentient person feels dehumanizing to me (even though yes I realize the Meduse are not humans lol).
Gretchen: That’s a really good point.
Mehek: I agree with you Andrea, I don’t think you are being oversensitive. “It” has a lot of negative connotations, and was kind of jarring to read through.
Michał: The pronoun was something I noticed, but didn’t pay too much attention to. I can see the reasoning behind disliking it. In fiction, using “it” to describe a sentient being is often deliberately meant to be dismissive (like Sera and Vivienne towards Cole in Dragon Age, which I’m just playing).
Michał: And now I want to see if someone translated the novella into Polish, because that’s a doozy to translate.
Andrea: Go look! We eagerly await your findings.
*Sadly, it has not yet been translated into Polish*
What Did Work in the Novel?
Gretchen: The second scene in the spaceport was fantastic. Okorafor did such a great job communicating Binti’s feeling of Otherness and all the little microaggressions from the Khoush that come along with that. I cringed reading it because it felt so real.
Andrea: By contrast, the moment where the professors at Oomza Uni listen to Binti and acknowledge they have wronged the Meduse and return their stolen property felt way too unreal. I was expecting tragedy, not people behaving rationally and compassionately. It was unbelievably refreshing and I loved it.
Michał: I was expecting them to dig their heels in too.
Mehek: the racial aspect and colonization aspects of this really worked. Despite the foreignness of the setting, it felt like something a real person was going through. I’ve been in Binti’s shoes, and it’s nice to see that on the page.
Michał: The segue between Binti’s homeland and space was really smooth. We saw her world-view expand from her own family to the larger perspective on Earth, and then to space. The meshing of her real culture and sci-fi trappings also worked quite well.
Jeremiah: Not to be the guy who always talks about words but the language she used was gorgeous. It had a very nice sensual flow to it.
Michał: Pretty sure we all qualify as that particular guy or girl.
Gretchen: You’re right, Jeremiah. It was so vivid and immersive. I also really liked Okwu’s development. They had a strong character arc. The moment they tell Binti they’re friends now killed me. I’m such a sucker for found family moments.
Michał: At first, the peaceful resolution of the conflict didn’t sit well with me. But then I realized that maybe I’m just conditioned by the way media trend the other way? Not sure.
Andrea: I think the next conflict is going to be with Binti and her identity, now that she’s away from her family, and yet the meaning of her family’s legacy has changed.
Gretchen: According to the summary for the sequel, Binti is headed home to face her family after a year at Oomza, so you’re exactly right. Can I just say, I’m so excited for the sequel.
Mehek: I genuinely enjoyed this novella. The pacing, tone and general feel was exactly what I wanted to read out of this story. Binti was an enjoyable POV character to see this through, and seeing her struggle, pain, and overall arc was a great reading experience. I, of course, have my criticisms as stated above, but I would recommend this to anyone who’s into science fiction and wants to read something more diverse.
Jeremiah: I really loved the pacing and feel of the novella. For only ninety pages there is a lot of character depth as well as nuanced relationships with other characters we hardly even see. Whatever quibbles I have are more than forgiven by the fact “Binti” is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Andrea: Everyone should read more Afrofuturism. Binti is exactly the kind of story I want more of, especially in sci-fi. I want stories with unbelievable technology and emotional conflict and magic and diverse perspectives that expand the genre.
Michał: It was short, but it was deep. There’s a metaphor about water somewhere in here that I can’t quite reach right now. I can recommend it to anyone, particularly since it’s short and you can get through it in a couple of days – but you’ll get a lot from it.
Gretchen: The biggest recommendation that I can give is that when I got to the end, I thought “Is that it??? I WANT MORE.” (Thankfully, two sequels have been announced, yay!). This is the kind of science fiction I’ve been missing and need more of. Its’ rich, immersive, diverse, and weaves together so many different concepts and cultures into a beautiful tapestry. I’m so down for more Afrofuturism.
We leave you with this delightful nugget: the quote from the cover of the book, which just so happens to be from the author of our competing team’s most recent review.